Dr. Seuss is the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel (March 2, 1904 - September 24, 1991) who was an American writer and cartoonist best known for his collection of children's books.
Life and work
Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2, 1904 graduated from Dartmouth College in 1925, and entered Lincoln College, Oxford intending to earn a doctorate in literature. At Oxford, however, he met Helen Palmer, wedded her in 1927, and returned to the United States. He began submitting humorous articles and illustrations to Judge (a humor magazine), The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Vanity Fair, and Liberty. Geisel's first work signed as "Dr. Seuss" appeared six months into his work for "Judge". One notable "Technocracy Number" made fun of Technocracy, Inc. and featured satirical rhymes at the expense of Frederick Soddy. He became nationally famous from his advertisements for Flit, a common insecticide at the time. His slogan, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" became a popular catchphrase; Seuss supported himself and his wife through the Great Depression by drawing advertising for General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, and many other companies.
Even at this early stage, Geisel had started using the pen name "Dr. Seuss". "Seuss" was his mother's maiden name; as an immigrant from Germany she would have pronounced it more or less as "Zoice", but today it is universally pronounced in Americanized form, with an initial s sound and rhyming with "juice". The "Dr." is an acknowledgement of his father's unfulfilled hopes that Seuss would earn a doctorate at Oxford.
In 1936, while Seuss sailed again to Europe, the rhythm of the ship's engines inspired the poem that became his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Seuss wrote three more children's books before the war (see list of works below), two of which are, unusually, in prose.
As World War II began, Dr. Seuss turned to political cartoons, drawing over 400 in two years. Although Dr. Seuss's political cartoons opposed the viciousness of Hitler and Mussolini, some depict Japanese Americans as traitors. One such cartoon appeared days before the internments started. These latter cartoons are troubling to some.
In 1942 Dr. Seuss turned his energies to direct support of the U.S. Government's war effort. First, he worked drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. Then, in 1943, he joined the Army and was sent to Frank Capra's Signal Corps Unit in Hollywood, where he wrote films for the United States Armed Forces, including "Your Job in Germany," a 1945 propaganda film about peace in Europe after World War II, "Design for Death," a study of Japanese culture that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1948, and the Private Snafu series of army training films. While in the Army he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Dr. Seuss's non-military films from around this time were also well received; Gerald McBoing-Boing won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Animated) in 1950.
Despite his numerous awards, Dr. Seuss never won the Caldecott Medal, nor the Newbery.
After the war, Dr. Seuss moved with his wife Helen to La Jolla, California, a small community forming part of San Diego. Returning to children's books, he wrote what many consider to be his finest works, including such favorites as If I Ran the Zoo, (1950), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), If I Ran the Circus (1956), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957).
At the same time, an important development occurred that influenced much of Seuss's later work. In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, Seuss's publisher made up a list of 400 words he felt were important and asked Dr. Seuss to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words. Nine months later, Seuss, using 220 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. This book was a tour de force--it retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Seuss's earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary could be read by beginning readers.
In 1960 Bennett Cerf bet Dr. Seuss $50 that he couldn't write an entire book using only fifty words. The result was Green Eggs and Ham. Curiously, Cerf never paid him the $50.
These books achieved significant international success, and remain extremely popular in the present day.
Dr. Seuss went on to write many other children's books, both in his new simplified-vocabulary manner (sold as "Beginner Books") and in his older, more elaborate style. The Beginner Books were not easy for Seuss, and reportedly he labored for months crafting them.
At various times Seuss also wrote books for adults that used the same style of verse and pictures: The Seven Lady Godivas, Oh, The Places You'll Go!, and his final book You're Only Old Once, a satire of hospitals and the geriatric lifestyle.
Following a very difficult illness, Helen Palmer Geisel died a suicide in 1967. Seuss married Audrey Stone Diamond in 1968. Seuss himself died, following several years of illness, in La Jolla on September 24, 1991.
Dr. Seuss did not like publicity. This may have been attributed due to his German ancestry - during World War I, his classmates used to nickname him "The Kaiser".
Dr. Seuss's Meters
Dr. Seuss wrote most of his books in a verse form that in the terminology of metrics would be characterized as anapestic tetrameter, a meter employed also by Byron and other poets of the English literary canon. (It is also the meter of the famous Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholas). Abstractly, anapestic tetrameter consists of four rhythmic units (anapests), each composed of two weak beats followed by one strong, schematized below:
x x X x x X x x X x x X
Often, the first weak syllable is omitted, or an additional weak syllable is added at the end. A typical line (the first line of If I Ran the Circus) is:
In ALL the whole TOWN the most WONderful SPOT
Seuss generally maintained this meter quite strictly, up to late in his career, when he was no longer able to maintain strict rhythm in all lines. The consistency of his meter was one of his hallmarks; the many imitators and parodists of Seuss are often unable to write in strict anapestic tetrameter, or unaware that they should, and thus sound clumsy in comparison with the original.
Seuss also wrote verse in trochaic tetrameter, an arrangement of four units each with a strong followed by a weak beat:
X x X x X x X x
An example is the title (and first line) of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The formula for trochaic meter permits the final weak position in the line to be omitted, which facilitates the construction of rhymes.
Seuss generally maintained trochaic meter only for brief passages, and for longer stretches typically mixed it with iambic tetrameter:
x X x X x X x X
which is easier to write. Thus, for example, the magicians in Bartholemew and the Oobleck make their first appearance chanting in trochees (thus resembling the witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth):
Shuffle, duffle, muzzle, muff
then switch to iambs for the oobleck spell:
Go make the oobleck tumble down
In Green Eggs and Ham, Sam-I-Am generally speaks in trochees, and the exasperated character he proselytizes replies in iambs.
While most of Seuss's books are either uniformly anapestic or iambic-trochaic, a few mix triple and double rhythms. Thus, for instance, Happy Birthday to You is generally written in anapestic tetrameter, but breaks into iambo-trochaic meter for the "Dr. Derring's singing herrings" and "Who-Bubs" episodes.